As a part of a story mapping project with Rethos, Springboard for the Arts and the Otter Tail County Historical Society, local storymappers Steve Henning and Jan Smith shared their story projects in a virtual event on Oct. 22. The projects will be compiled into a broader “story map” about the cultural assets and values of Otter Tail County in summer 2021.

Henning, of AMS Digital Productions, is compiling a video on “The Wadena Beach Story” about families who built cabins on Lake Blanche starting in the 1890s. These first Anglo-Americans began with camps during the polio epidemic, which included an outbreak in Wadena that families were eager to escape from, as Henning said.

Theodore Northfoss was a businessman in Wadena who operated a mill and lumber yard and was one of the first owners of the cabins on Lake Blanche.
Photo courtesy of Wadena County Historical Society
Theodore Northfoss was a businessman in Wadena who operated a mill and lumber yard and was one of the first owners of the cabins on Lake Blanche. Photo courtesy of Wadena County Historical Society

His wife’s great-grandfather Theodore Northfoss, a businessman in Wadena who operated a mill and lumber yard, searched the lake for the perfect spot and eventually passed along the location to fellow neighbors in Wadena who also purchased lots along the north shore. About 20 Wadena community members had cabins on Lake Blanche with Northfoss, L. L. Benedict, John Knight and Mr. Montgomery as several of the first owners of these cabins, according to Wadena County Historical Society records from 1928. Another first owner included A. D. Baker from Deer Creek, who brought the lake “into prominence as a summer residence section,” as stated in the 1928 records.

Wadena is marked around the lake area with road signs and the business owners behind the cabins, including a lumber baron, sash and door company, two brothers who owned the first hydroelectric power plant in Wadena, the town doctor and town banker.

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In 1912, the families hit a possible hiccup: the Otter Tail County tuberculosis sanitorium was thought to be planned for Lake Blanche causing “mild panic,” as stated in the May 2, 1912 Pioneer Journal. The Valentine camp, between Lake Blanche and Annie Battle about 2 miles from the Lake Blanche camp, was selected as a prospective location for the sanitorium.

“The chief attraction of the Lake Blanche camp is its seclusion and up to this time it has been an ideal family resort,” the 1912 article stated. “The interested Wadena people feel that the sanitarium would change things materially and that the tuberculosis sanitarium would bring in so many people that their camp would gradually become less and less desirable.”

The stories in the project video are remembrances of years past, of families that gathered on the lake summer after summer. In a family history shared with the Historical Society Sally Miner Mudge describes the yearly memory of shaking the “candy tree” in the early 1930s with her sisters and their grandfather Theodore Northfoss.

“One of our exciting summer events was the shaking of the candy tree. Our grandfather Northfoss had a small Ironwood tree outside of our cottage, which he frequently checked for seeds,which he would announce were not yet ripe,” Mudge said. “Finally, the day arrived when we were told to gather around under the tree to see what we could see. While we shook the tree with all our might, mysteriously, wrapped candy fell at our feet.”

On the front porch of their cabin in 1903 is Theodore Northfoss and his wife Anna along with their children Garner and Marie.
Photo courtesy of Wadena County Historical Society
On the front porch of their cabin in 1903 is Theodore Northfoss and his wife Anna along with their children Garner and Marie. Photo courtesy of Wadena County Historical Society

Even today, the cabins continue to “retain the original flavor” with parts of the original cabin within the home, as Henning said. Each cabin also had a nickname.

“I think people do it without even thinking, you know it’s like, ‘Grandpa built this, I don’t want to destroy it. I want to enhance it,’” Henning said.

One of the stories the project will highlight is the tragedy of 1910 when an engaged couple, Gladys Wiswell and Frank Kingsley, Jr., drowned in the lake. In a 1967-68 progress report in the Pioneer Journal resident Harald E. Boen said it was a “tragedy that depressed the entire community of Wadena and surrounding area in 1910.” Wiswell was 18-years-old and part of the oldest family in Wadena. Kingsley was 21-years-old and his father was a widely known drayman in town, according to the report.

As many people were heading home from their cabins, Wiswell and Kinglsey were discovered missing hours after leaving the camp. After extensive searching both bodies were later recovered and buried together in the Wadena cemetery.

“Without question it (the funeral) was the largest one ever held in this community. It seems that the entire community assembled at the church, which was altogether too small to accommodate the people, hundreds remaining without the church doors during the services,” according to Boen.

As one of the families who enjoyed the cabins on the lake, the Wiswells were known as the oldest family in Wadena. In 1910, Gladys Wiswell and Frank Kingsley, Jr. drowned in the lake.
Photo courtesy of Wadena County Historical Society
As one of the families who enjoyed the cabins on the lake, the Wiswells were known as the oldest family in Wadena. In 1910, Gladys Wiswell and Frank Kingsley, Jr. drowned in the lake. Photo courtesy of Wadena County Historical Society

The story is passed down amongst the families as a cautionary tale about water safety and has almost become a myth, according to Henning.

Another view of the county’s lakes includes the real or imagined stories about fishing that Smith is collecting in her Powerpoint project “Otter Tail County's 1,000 lakes (and more ponds) Have Stories to Tell.” She hopes to highlight historical and present day stories from newspaper archives and community members’ stories of old to keep people coming to the county. The recording of these stories are important so they don’t “go lost,” as Smith said.

“If we don’t write them down or if they're not told … they’re going to be forgotten,” Smith said.

As an Otter Tail County native and retiree, one of Smith’s personal fish stories from her time growing up near the lakes is staying at a resort as a young kid and catching a large fish on her own. Her parents instructed her to behave and she decided this included going fishing to the unbelieving results of her parents when she “lugged” in the fish.

Smith also shared tips for creating your own project such as cost, time needed, finding images and creative ways to gather stories. She’s hoping to collect stories in eight communities throughout Otter Tail county with prizes offered for those who share their fish story. You can also email Smith at jansmith@arvig.net with your written or videoed stories and a picture if you have one.